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Actors’ systems thinking in a logistics context: An application of cognitive mapping
Linköping University, Department of Science and Technology, Communications and Transport Systems. Linköping University, The Institute of Technology. (Bygglogistik)
2012 (English)Report (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Research has indicated that the level of logistics development in many companies still is not as sophisticated as can be expected from visionary outlooks in literature, especially those relating to the promises of Supply Chain Management (SCM). Although there hardly exists any universally accepted definition of what SCM is, certain related themes such as coordination, integration, and cooperation are often repeated in different guises. Although sometimes expressed implicitly, these are often seen as imperative for SCM success. Coordination of logistics along an entire supply chain is put forth as having a potential to lend great benefits, but it requires the chain to be “… managed as one single entity where end customer satisfaction is the superior goal for all involved actors. This demands collaboration on a strategic level and that all involved actors have a true supply chain orientation.”

The majority of contemporary logistics practices are however far from this vision. There are sporadic reports on the odd case in which logistics collaboration have rendered exceptional results, but the majority of companies have not yet reached the full potential. As put by Spekman et al: “… business has yet to crack the code … talk is cheap and supply chain management is still only part of today’s jargon.” Companies are reported to, at best, focus internal optimisations and have neither managed to implement SCM in reality, nor adopt the underlying philosophy.

One possible explanation for this might be that the vast majority of logistics research neglects a very important factor: actors. It is the actors1 who carry out all the tasks and activities, from strategic to operative, of the logistics practices. Therefore the actors are of utmost importance for which logistics solutions that are implemented. As put so aptly by Skjoett-Larsen (2000): “In the end, it is the employees and not the systems and processes that will ensure solutions to the logistics tasks and provide the company with the necessary competitiveness.  Therefore, it is crucial not to underestimate the human and cultural aspects in the implementati on of projects of change in the company.” (p. 386).

Anything that happens in the logistics practices of enterprises, apart from ‘catastrophic’ events such as accidents, are the effect of human decisions and actions. Decisions in a logistics system span a range from strategic, e.g. localization of facilities or outsourcing of entire service bundles, to operative, e.g. batch sizing, picking routes in a warehouse, or issuing dispatch orders. Actions are the effectuation of such decisions as well as any physical and administrative tasks that are necessary for the logistics to function. We can see an immense spectrum of actions and decisions dispersed over time and space, made by different actors in the logistics practices.

In a recent publication, actors are in fact the very basis for defining logistics: “Logistics and supply chain systems are networks of interacting human decision makers.” This contrasts the finding of Gammelgaard (2004), who, based on the framework of three methodological approaches presented by Arbnor & Bjerke (1997), concludes that it is the analytical and systems approaches that so far have dominated logistics. Regarding the third, the actors approach, it is stated: “The implication is that this approach may not be relevant in logistics, or maybe logistics researchers have not yet seen its potential for investigating new aspects of their field.” This paper intends to show that the latter alternative is most likely, by demonstrating the relevance of an actors approach (an interpretive approach).

To be more specific, the purpose of this paper is to apply an interpretive approach to actors’ systems thinking. The aim is to explore whether the systems thinking of actors within a mutual context (i.e. a certain shared logistics practice) differs, even in a context where a high degree of homogeneity in systems thinking can be assumed a priori. If differences can be demonstrated, it calls for the logistics research community to alter its systems thinking.

The purpose is pursued by first discussing the systems perspective that thus far seems to have dominated the discipline. Thereafter an alternative, ‘soft’, viewpoint regarding systems is presented, and from this perspective it is argued that an approach that can accommodate for differences in individual systems thinking is necessary. In order to handle this, a construct from cognitive psychology (mental models) as well as techniques for studying these (cognitive mapping) are adopted. These are then applied on a group of actors who are all related to one shared  logistics practice, a retail chain store based in Sweden. Causal maps are created for all actors, and these are then compared in order to identify any similarities or discrepancies. The paper is wrapped up with a discussion of which implications the finding from this actors perspective can have for both research and practice.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2012. , 58 p.
, LIU-IEI-WP, 2012:1
National Category
Transport Systems and Logistics
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-77116ISRN: LIU‐IEI‐WP‐12/0001OAI: diva2:524966
Available from: 2012-05-04 Created: 2012-05-04 Last updated: 2012-05-08Bibliographically approved
In thesis
1. On systems thinking in logistics management - A critical perspective
Open this publication in new window or tab >>On systems thinking in logistics management - A critical perspective
2012 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Systems thinking. Systems theory. The systems approach. All these concepts have in various guises been claimed as central to logistics management, since its dawning in the mid twentieth century. Such claims are the starting point of this dissertation, the purpose of which is to contribute to an increased understanding of systems thinking in logistics management research, both present and for future advances. The primary unit of analysis in this dissertation is thus logistics management research.

The purpose is pursued through a strategy of triangulation of research approaches, via two research objectives:

  • To describe the nature of systems thinking in logistics management research.
  • To explore the merits for logistics management research of an interpretive approach to actors’ systems thinking.

The term systems thinking in this dissertation denotes any somewhat ‘organised’ bodies of thought with aspirations to be ‘holistic’ in the sense of aiming for comprehensiveness. This part relates mostly to the systems part of the term. With regard to the other part, systems thinking is also regarded as a term that encompasses thinking about, and in terms of, systems; either that of researchers or that of actors in logistics practices.

Systems thinking can sometimes be theorised on in such a way that it seems fair to label it as systems theory. Another term that is also frequently employed is systems approach. This denotes any approach to intervene in and/or conduct research on enterprises, with a holistic ambition. Such approaches can or cannot be informed by systems theory. By approach is meant the fundamental assumptions of the effort, such as ontological and epistemological positions, views on human nature, and methodologies.

This dissertation employs an approach informed by a strand of systems theory labelled Critical Systems Thinking (CST). This builds on a pluralist strategy, which entails an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of all types of systems approaches, and thus strives towards putting them to work under such circumstances in which they are best suited.

The first objective is pursued by means of a combined inductive-deductive approach presented mainly through two peer-reviewed, published journal articles. The first is an extensive literature review of academic publications in logistics management; the second is a survey of logistics management academics. Results show that the systems thinking within the discipline most often is not informed by systems theory, and is oriented towards a narrow section of the available systems approaches. This is an approach that builds on an objective world-view (realist ontology), and which seeks knowledge in terms of different kinds of law-like regularities. There are variations to the kinds of knowledge that are sought, in the sense that some search for deeper, underlying generative mechanisms (structuralist epistemology), some seek causal relationships among observable phenomena (positivist epistemology). The common view on human nature is determinist, and methodologies are often quantitative. It is concluded that logistics management employs a functionalist systems approach, which implicitly assumes homogeneity in actors’ systems thinking in mutual contexts (i.e. shared logistics practices).

The second objective is pursued by adopting an interpretive systems approach, thus embracing a nominalist ontology and interpretivist epistemology, in order to explore what benefits such a perspective can lend to logistics management. Informed by the pluralist commitment of CST, theoretical constructs and methods grounded in cognitive psychology are employed to study logistics management practitioners’ systems thinking through cognitive mapping. If this reveals heterogeneities in systems thinking among actors of a mutual context, in which a high degree of homogeneity can be expected, the rationale is that the dominant homogeneity assumption is insufficient. The study, presented through an unpublished working paper, concludes that actors’ systems thinking can differ in ways that render the assumptions of the functionalist systems approach inadequate. More thought, debate, and research on an interpretive systems approach within logistics management is called for.

With constant expansions in the scope of ambition for logistics management in mind – towards larger enterprise systems in the spirit of supply chain management, towards more goals for enterprises than the traditional financial ones, and towards new application areas (e.g. healthcare) – it is recognised that more and more actors become stakeholders in the practices that logistics management research seeks to incorporate within its domain of normative ambitions. This leads to an expanding scope of voices that ought to be heard in order to legitimise efforts to improve logistics management practices. This in turn motivates that we should seek to accommodate not only interpretive systems approaches, but also emancipatory, in order to ensure normative prescriptions that are legitimate from the perspectives of as many stakeholders as possible, not only from the common a priori efficiency perspectives of functionalist logistics management research.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2012. 144 (including appendix 1-2) p.
Linköping Studies in Science and Technology. Dissertations, ISSN 0345-7524 ; 1456
Logistics management, Systems thinking, Systems theory, Systems approach, Critical, Interpretive, Actors
National Category
Transport Systems and Logistics
urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-77119 (URN)978-91-7519-878-1 (ISBN)
Public defence
2012-06-01, Kåkenhus, K3, Campus Norrköping, Linköpings universitet, Norrköping, 10:15 (English)
Available from: 2012-05-08 Created: 2012-05-04 Last updated: 2012-06-19Bibliographically approved

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